How much staff would you expect is needed to run a 196 seat restaurant? Not a fast-food restaurant per se but one where you order from your table and your food is brought to you. The New York Times has a story about Kura, a Japanese sushi chain, that runs restaurants that size with just six people working the front of the house and a skeleton crew in the kitchen (For Sushi Chain, Conveyor Belts Carry Profit, Dec 30). How do they do it? Large amount of automation.
In the depths of the slump, in 1995, Mr. Tanaka started a company based on serving quality sushi on the cheap. His idea of using conveyor belts to offer diners a steady stream of sushi on small plates was not a new one; an Osaka-based entrepreneur invented such a system in the late 1950s. But Mr. Tanaka set out to undercut his rivals with deft automation, an investment in information technology, some creativity and an almost extreme devotion to cost-efficiency. In Japan, where labor costs are high, that meant running his restaurants with as few workers as possible.
Instead of placing supervisors at each restaurant, Kura set up central control centers with video links to the stores. At these centers, a small group of managers watch for everything from wayward tuna slices to outdated posters on restaurant walls.
Each Kura store is also highly automated. Diners use a touch panel to order soup and other side dishes, which are delivered to tables on special express conveyor belts. In the kitchen, a robot busily makes the rice morsels for a server to top with cuts of fish that have been shipped from a central processing plant, where workers are trained to slice tuna and mackerel accurately down to the gram.
Diners are asked to slide finished plates into a tableside bay, where they are automatically counted to calculate the bill, doused in cleaning fluid and flushed back to the kitchen on a stream of water. Matrix codes on the backs of plates keep track of how long a sushi portion has been circulating on conveyor belts; a small robotic arm disposes of any that have been out too long.
What can a supervisor miles away tell the restaurant staff? The example given in the article is that there is an over-sized gap between sushi plates on the conveyor belts. This photo shows the code on the bottom of the sushi plate:
It doesn’t take much to find YouTube videos of people ordering from a touch screen at their table or getting a beer from an automated dispenser.
The payoff to this is really cheap sushi. A plate goes from 100 yen — or about a $1.22.
I think this is a trip. I’ve got a nine-year old who loves sushi and gadgets and would, if you will, totally eat this up. Given that McDonald’s and other quick service firms have automated large parts of producing burgers and fried chicken, it’s logical that entrepreneurs have found ways to reduce the labor costs in other restaurant categories. I see two interesting points in Kura’s set up. First, they have managed to do away with the order counter. They are offering sit down service where the customer gets to immediately move into their own space as opposed to having to stare at a menu sign at the counter to make their choices. The second is just the category they are in. At least in the US, sushi generally draws a premium and even grocery stores go through the motions of pretending that sushi is special. Out local Whole Foods, for example, dresses the staff preparing sushi differently to signal that sushi is different. But it doesn’t have to be. Kura shows that sushi is just another product and that good process design and smart investment can result in a good product delivered at a very reasonable price.